#5: Green Lantern (2011)
Rather than spending this entire entry talking about what makes Green Lantern such a transparently horrible film, I thought I’d go in a somewhat different direction with this by showing how good it should have been by contrasting it with the animated films Green Lantern: First Flight (2009) and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011.) I selected these films not only because of the quality of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, but because First Flight has basically the same plot as the live-action film (only better), and Emerald Knights demonstrates many of the qualities that make the Green Lantern Corps so awesome but were completely missing in the live-action adaptation.
The live-action film tells Hal Jordan’s (Ryan Reynolds) origin story. When Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) crash lands on the earth after a fight with Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown), his Green Lantern ring selects Hal Jordan as a replacement for reasons passing understanding. Seriously: Hal Jordan as characterized in this film does not belong anywhere near superpowers ever, especially ones that carefully select someone based on their worthiness. And Ryan Reynolds was probably close to the worst imaginable person for the role, as the character pretty much had to be characterized as a cocky alpha-male clown for him to at least seem like a “fit.”
Demonstrating his “worthiness,” Jordan uses his powers to defend himself from an attack (by workers who were laid off largely due to Jordan’s irresponsible actions earlier in the film) and showing off for his friend in a manner that seems disturbingly similar to how a frat boy would act if he suddenly got super powers. I’m not saying most people wouldn’t show off to their friends if they got super powers, or that doing so is wrong. What I’m saying is that the tone of how Jordan did so in this film was pretty grating to my sensibilities, and probably not very representative of the best humanity has to offer. I would just like to see someone more reminiscent of, say, Captain Kirk, who can have a lot of similar flaws and do a lot of similar things and get away with it better because he’s a better, more intellectual man with higher ideals.
Naturally, Hal is whisked away to planet Oa to meet other Lanterns such as their leader Sinestro (Mark Strong), who is displeased with Jordan’s selection as a Lantern (which I can’t help but agree with him about in the case of this Hal Jordan…), Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) who teaches Hal how to use his powers, and drill instructor Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan.) Actually, these three seem to be the only members of the Green Lantern Corps, but whatever. Sinestro is concerned about the threat of Parallax, a threat which the Guardians inexplicably refuse to give Sinestro (or anyone else) any information about until much later in the film for no apparent reason. Things aren’t going so great on earth, either. Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a highly intelligent scientist who gains mental powers due to being exposed to yellow energy from Parallax, makes two attempts to kill his father, U.S. Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins.) The first attempt is to make his helicopter crash at a party, which Jordan is able to stop by using his powers. The second attempt comes at the lab, which Jordan is unable to prevent.
The Guardians finally spill the beans that Parallax was himself a Guardian who tried to wield yellow energy, but became an embodiment of fear itself. Sinestro inexplicably concludes that a yellow ring must be forged to combat him. No one gives any indication of why this makes any sense, especially given that this is essentially how a much more powerful being (a Guardian) became the evil they’re now facing, but everyone just sort of goes with it. Except for Hal, who isn’t especially wild about the idea of the earth being destroyed. He requests (and is denied) the Corps’ assistance defending his world, which would never happen in the other versions I’m talking about later ever and is a pretty jarring lack of heroism on the Corps’ part that seems to violate their core principles.
Back to earth. Hal has his showdown with Hammond, which really brings a fine point to this film’s awkwardness. Hammond really feels like a completely unnecessary character in this entire thing, which makes his inclusion as a secondary villain perplexing at best. Furthermore, we are told about halfway through the film that he and Hal were old friends. Wait, what? Where did that come from? You can’t just materialize a relationship out of thin air halfway through a film and then never do anything else with it.
But the true apex of this film’s awfulness comes in their final showdown. We see Jordan’s alpha-male macho bravado come face-to-face with Hammond’s twisted intellectualism. Jordan gives up his ring to Hammond, who finds himself unable to use it, to which Jordan offers the stirring rebuke, “You have to be chosen.” This is, to me, the most damningly awful thing about the film. It would’ve worked if Hammond’s story hadn’t largely depicted him as a sympathetic victim of circumstance, someone no one really understood who didn’t want to do any harm to anyone until he was corrupted by yellow energy. No one respected him. He was intellectual. He wasn’t conventionally ambitious. He was… the target audience of a lot of superhero films.
Yeah. The payoff of that entire subplot is an alpha-male jock type beating up a nerd. Makes perfect sense in a superhero movie, right? Then Hammond predictably gets eaten by Parallax and then it’s up to Hal to save the world. I won’t bore you with the details, but (spoiler alert) he succeeds, and the Corps realizes how wrong they were about him. And then, in a post-credits scene, Sinestro steals the yellow ring and puts it on for no apparent reason.
So, wow. Pretty much the only thing this film did “right” was have people who have known a hero intimately recognize him despite his face being partially-not-really-covered by a flimsy mask, and that has nothing to do with the Green Lantern, it just pokes fun of a convention that has always irked me.
Although it’s not really a secret that I think DC’s animated films are dramatically superior to their live-action films, I think the Green Lantern films provide the most striking example of this. Everything the live-action film did poorly or failed to do, First Flight and Emerald Knights did exceptionally well.
First Flight is an exceptionally striking example, as it tells the exact some story (Hal’s origin and introduction to the Corps, anyway; the villain is completely different), only better. A lion’s share of the improvement comes from the characterization of Hal Jordan (voiced by Christopher Meloni.) Whereas the live-action film could only portray him in his “fish out of water” state by having him be an exceptionally cocky bastard who got knocked around, was found unworthy, and quit on the Corps due to his frustration, First Flight shows him being similarly “in over his head” and reacting much more sensibly.
Emerald Knights uses an imminent crisis that interrupts Hal Jordan’s (voiced by Nathan Fillion) training of a new recruit (Arisia Rrab, voiced by Elisabeth Moss) as a frame for several stories about various members (past and present) of the Green Lantern Corps, and gives us an idea of both the Corps’ history and what it stands for. We see a Corps of individuals who are fully prepared to lay down their lives to protect others (which is a dramatic contrast to the live-action film.) Given the structure the big payoff message is pretty unsurprising, as one of the Guardians orates, “Once again the diversity of the Corps has proven to be its greatest asset.” It’s really hard to imagine the live-action version with all of its individualism and alpha-male B.S. even implying that kind of message.
And it isn’t just the message of that film, it’s represented in the reality of the Corps we see in those two films. In the live-action film, we get three other Corps members, all male. Admittedly, this is a bit weaker in First Flight where there are only two female Corps members depicted (and one of them turns out to be evil), but last time I checked two is still better than zero. Emerald Knights, though, has several female characters (including Arisia.) Furthermore, one of the featured stories Hal relates to Arisia focuses on Laira, and she is depicted as one of the most powerful and reliable members of the Corps.
Furthermore, the first story Hal conveys to Arisia serves as a pretty satisfying direct repudiation of all that alpha-male nonsense in the live-action film. In “The First Lantern,” Hal tells of Avra (Mitchell Whitfield), a scribe to the Guardians who was chosen to receive one of the first four power rings despite having absolutely no skill as a warrior. While the other first Lanterns are prepared to flee when battle overwhelms them, Avra alone demonstrates the willpower to continue the battle, and serves as an example for his fellow Lanterns.
These two films give two completely different characterization of Sinestro, and two completely different depictions of his relationship with Hal Jordan… both of which are superior to the live-action film’s approach to both. In First Flight, Sinestro takes Hal under his wing, but is doing so because he thinks the human might go along with his scheme to take over the Corps. This Sinestro is cunning, underhanded, and clearly evil. Jordan is disgusted by his methods, and in order to get him out of his way, Sinestro frames Jordan for murder. In Emerald Knights, though there are allusions to his later betrayal, Sinestro is much more fleshed out as Jordan’s mentor figure and the leader of the Green Lanterns.
Finally, the essential elements of both films were dramatically better than the live-action films. Nathan Fillion was a brilliant choice to voice Hal Jordan in Emerald Knights (and also fulfilled that role in Justice League: Doom), and I think would be a rather obvious choice to play him in a live-action feature. (Really, anyone would be better than Ryan Reynolds.) And the big payoff with live-action films is supposed to be that they’re more visually stunning, but I actually preferred the animated films. The more traditional-looking costumes were much more visually appealing than that ridiculous CGI suits in the live-action version, the Guardians were hideous-looking in the live-action version, and the space scenes in general just looked pretty “weird” in the live-action version.
Both animated films succeed in giving us a sense of a “larger universe” while also focusing on the heroics of a man named Hal Jordan. Both also seem much more true to the themes of the comics, and especially to the principles of the Green Lantern Corps. Whether in brightest day or darkest night, I’d watch either of these animated films in a heartbeat. The live-action film…? Not so much.